Dear memoir: I’m afraid of you.


Writing from personal experience can be difficult territory. How honest can you really be? What does it mean when you feel too afraid to go back and revise? If you do publish your stories, what will people think of you?

There’s good reason for all of the questions and worries. In memoir, the stakes are high. When you write about deeply personal events, parts of your life that are integral to who you are, you can’t expect to just breeze through it. As nice as it sounds, that would just be weird.

The good thing is, your fear is a great signpost. It’s telling you to pay attention. 

If you have chosen to write about personal events and you’re challenged or confused right now, that means you’re probably on the right track. Here are some thoughts to help you navigate the fog.

How do you know if it’s worth it to polish and revise all of your stories? What if it was just cathartic to write all of that down?

You get to decide what kind of relationship you have with your writing. That means that you can’t know if something is worth publishing or not. You decide to make it worth publishing or not. Writing is like any other intimate relationship — it doesn’t exist outside of your intention. A marriage works not because two people are meant to be, it works because two people have chosen it.

Are these stories for your own therapeutic use? If so, have they done what they need to do? Do you feel released and free now that you've written them?

Or do you honestly want to go back, possibly even deeper into the scenes, to  polish them and gift-wrap them so they are ready to be shared?

Try to find a still, quiet place inside yourself to reflect. To reduce anxiety or chattery self-talk, get grounded with some simple somatic practices, like a body scan, deep breathing, and full-body stretches.

Writing memoir might feel like a sudden download, an all-at-once whirling arrival of scenes. It might be a long and elliptical journey that takes you years to meander and discover.  Or both, at different times. Your process will be unique.

Writing for catharsis and confession is not the same as writing your memoir for a wider audience. It’s important to write your early drafts with honesty — this is the best way to start. But if you want to share it, then you must craft a story out of your raw material.

Writing can be therapeutic, but it is not the same as good therapy. *

If you’re going to go back into difficult emotional scenes in order to craft them, you will be facing those traumas again and again, as you revise your story. Your nervous system will feel this in different ways. Look for a trauma-aware therapist or writing coach who can help support you as you do this work.

If you are writing into difficult or traumatic life experiences, I can recommend these coaches and therapists:

Annie Bray

Dr. Stacy Thomas

Carmen Spagnola

Chichi Agorom

As soon as you decide to commit to writing your story, you may already feel better. It’s always the hardest when you’re at the threshold of commitment, struggling to make a decision. So much power comes out of the decision itself.

Your writing will respond to your commitment, and rise to meet you.

If you start to feel afraid about what other people will think of your stories, you can always go back to that still, quiet place (ideally with the help of a therapist or coach).

Get grounded, using somatic practices to calm your nervous system and feel present. From that grounded place, ask yourself, What am I writing for?

The answer might come to you without words. It may be a feeling, or an image. This can help settle you, and refresh your courage and intention.


* This perfect and quotable reminder came to me from writer and Story Intensive lead teacher Sonal Champsee.

Photo credit: John Towner on Unsplash

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Sarah Selecky

Thank you for sharing your insight, Amelia. It's true, there are so many ways to use our experiences. Fiction writers often craft different facets of their own lived experience in order to illustrate specific fictionalized stories, dilemmas and characters, too.
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Thanks so much Sarah! I like writing about people and my experiences to understand human dynamics, personalities. Reading this makes me wonder if it is better just to learn, to use it in unexpected ways rather than re-live difficult moments, by building stories with them.
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